The B.C. government’s effective response to COVID-19 has highlighted its failure in dealing with the overdose crisis.
It’s been more than four years since former provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared the crisis an unprecedented public health emergency.
And it’s been 15 months since current provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry released a report calling on the province to decriminalize drug possession to save lives.
Decriminalization is “an important additional step to stem the tide of unprecedented deaths,” she said.
But the government immediately rejected Henry’s call for action. Not our responsibility. It’s up to the federal government, said Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.
Henry said clearly that was not true.
“In the context of the continuing overdose crisis that is affecting families and communities across B.C., the province cannot wait for action at the federal level,” she wrote. “Immediate provincial action is warranted.”
Henry outlined two ways the province could act without waiting for Ottawa.
The B.C. Police Act allows Farnworth to set policing priorities, including “declaring a public health and harm reduction approach as a provincial priority to guide law enforcement in decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing people who use drugs,” the report noted.
And cabinet could create a regulation under the Police Act that “prevents any member of a police force in B.C. from expending resources on the enforcement of simple possession offences.”
Fifteen months and 1,330 overdose deaths later, the provincial government is still passing the buck.
Premier John Horgan wrote the federal government this week calling for “a national plan to decriminalize the possession of controlled substances for personal use.” It’s an “essential strategy” to save lives, he said.
But if it’s an “essential strategy,” why has his government failed to act on Henry’s straightforward life-saving decriminalization plan?
The government — and the public — have embraced Henry’s guidance on COVID-19, even made her a folk hero.
But they have ignored her call for measures that would reduce the much greater toll from poisoned drugs.
While the province has committed billions of dollars to responding to COVID-19, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions deals with the overdose crisis on a $10-million budget, less than the premier’s office spends.
And the government generously funds police and highway improvements to reduce traffic deaths. But in B.C. today, families are four times more likely to lose a loved to an overdose than to a car crash.
So what’s going on?
Tyee health reporter Moira Wyton wrote about last month’s record 175 overdose deaths.
She interviewed Guy Felicella, a peer clinical advisor at the BC Centre on Substance Use, who described the difference between the government’s response to the two crises.
“It took three days to almost lock down a country,” said Felicella, noting the dramatic provincial and federal measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But there has been no similar urgency around the overdose crisis.
“It’s really that some lives just mean more than others,” said Felicella. “And obviously drug users’ lives don’t mean much to people because if they did, they wouldn’t allow this to continue.”
Horgan was asked about the record deaths, and the contrast between the province’s actions on the pandemic and the overdose crisis.
And his response seemed to suggest Felicella was right — “some lives just mean more than others.”
“We have an insidious virus that affects anyone at any time, and we have an opioid crisis that involves people using drugs,” Horgan said. “Those are choices initially and then they become dependencies. I appreciate that the numbers align today, but I think we’re talking about two separate things here.”
But we’re not talking about two separate things. The 175 people who died in June from overdoses — almost six a day — weren’t victims of their bad choices. They didn’t decide to risk their lives to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. Most found relief from pain or sadness, until it went wrong.
Horgan apologized the next day, saying he was sorry he “mischaracterized the challenges of addictions.”
But actions speak louder than words.
Horgan can decriminalize drug use, following Henry’s blueprint. His government can expand the limited safe supply programs that let users avoid dangerous street drugs. It can expand harm reduction and treatment programs. It can show substance users and their families that their lives matter.
Until those things happen, it’s sadly true.
“Some lives just mean more than others.”